Scratch, scratch, scratch. How many days had it been? A woman carved a tally mark into a board for every sunrise she saw without sleeping. The sun on the water hurt her eyes, and her vision blurred. She couldn’t count the marks anymore. But she could see her reflection and her face was dark like a bruise, as if it were rotting. Ragna Axehound wondered idly if that was what her brain looked like, too. That was how she felt. Rotting.
Long ago, Ragna had felt the heat of the Wolf’s breath on the back of her neck. She was a warrior who stared gloriously down the Mordok hordes as her comrades died around her. Few would sing songs of that bravery, though – though she had survived numerous battles, her deeds of valor were not so many.
Space spoke to Ragna as she sat by the water in contemplation. “It’s time to go,” said the air behind her, in her sister’s voice. “Ragna, you know what will happen if you disobey them – these are the war-chief’s orders. It’s the only way.”
Ragna grimaced. A week ago she had defied the Mordok, and they dragged her into a pool of ink and fed black mice into her throat. She could still feel them squirming in there, in her belly. Now, because of her failure, the Axehound would punish her by means of exile. Quarantine, they called it, because the corruption was becoming an epidemic. Ragna knew what would happen either way: when her cousin was struck with plague seven years ago, the Axehound warriors were ordered to put him down. Her sister was too young to remember the tragedy. Ragna would remember forever.
Her sister’s hand finally materialized on her shoulder. It felt like space and time were distorted and the hand had just reached through a hole in the atmosphere – like Ragna only dreamed that her sister was there.
It took no more than a few hours to reach the other side of the lake, where the rest of the Corrupted were already interred. She had friends here, but after a week without sleeping, she could barely recognize their faces. She didn’t notice her sister saying goodbye, and she couldn’t make out the sadness and fear twisted on her face.
Ragna stared at the water for days. Her board was gone, so she couldn’t count the days anymore, so instead she thought about her Mother. Her hateful Mother who still whispered to her in the back of her head and promised her lies about freedom. She felt the cold crawling of her Mother’s tendrils on her back, and saw her reflected in her eyes, surrounded by rotting flesh.
She couldn’t remember Gaia’s arms anymore. She couldn’t taste any sweetness when she ate the fruit of Gaia’s beard. She couldn’t even feel softness when she pet Gaia’s hounds. The corruption was her only Mother now. Perhaps, she thought, it had always been this way, and this darkness was Gaia’s true face.
Ragna tried to push those thoughts from her mind. She was a devout Ulven and in a brief moment of clarity, the idea revolted her. But the creature in her blood reminded her, “Yes,” in a cold whisper, “I am your Mother. I love you and I will feed you.” Ragna puked into the lake and refused the call. She couldn’t get the mice out of her belly and she couldn’t get the voice out of her blood. It felt like her emotions were being ripped into pieces. She was sick and lost and all she wanted was to feel normal again.
Warriors were at the gates. Axehounds, her kin. When she was young, the sight of their blades and bright eyes made her feel so safe. And not so long ago, she was one of them, and drank and laughed with them and hunted beasts and fought Mordok beside them. That was her life, once, until now. Their eyes were filled with sadness and it frightened her. They didn’t have the corruption in their bodies, but she could feel a heavy darkness in their hearts, as easily as she could now sense the Mordok lurking in the water, whom no one else believed were there.
“I am your Mother,” the corruption comforted her. “I will protect you and my milk will make you whole.” Ragna tried to cough out her rotting blood.
Days passed again and Ragna was starved and soaked in urine, barely able to move. In her sleeplessness, Ragna saw and felt things that no earthly language could describe. She knew she was delirious, but she embraced it now, because there was nothing else to pass the time. She repeated the corruption’s words in her mind, to her former friends: she was a cocoon and her Mother was almost ready to hatch, and bloom like wildflowers. She was ready for Ragna to die, so her blood could be smeared on everybody, so the corruption could spread, so everyone could rot and burst like fruit left in the sun.
And then, they arrived. The corruption seemed to retreat, inside her body, from these holy people – a young priestess of Gaia, who’s warmth made Ragna cry, and a human holy-man in red, who made Ragna feel like she was burning. That was what she wanted, she thought, to be burned alive.
A token figurine, a deer’s head, hung on a nail on the wall of the shack. By the time Ragna noticed it that day, it had come loose, so it hung upside-down, its antlers pointing downward. The creature in her body quivered fearfully, sucking its tentacles back into her brain like a snail to its shell, and Ragna laughed and sobbed and dragged her dirty nails through the wood, knowing that this was an omen: today, burning in the sun, Ragna and her cruel Mother would be separated.
The tale of the Axehound Massacre would go down as one of the grimmest stories in Ulven history, not a battle to be celebrated. There are no victories to be sung when Ulven turn their swords on one-another. But on that day there was also Ragna, who even in her delirium, held her honor and loyalty to her clan and to the people of Mardrun, by bravely giving her life so that others might find a way to fight the Mordok’s corruption. Her flesh would serve as the final piece, in the puzzle of creating a new ritual that would burn the creeping corruption from a person’s body for good.
Her final memories would be of her clansmen holding her and whispering, “Your name will ring in the ears of the Great Wolf.”